Sweet or sour: A look at benefits, risks of consuming artificial sweeteners

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Those pretty pink, blue and yellow packets clad with sparkling berries and cursive type usually tucked neatly beside the table sugar in a restaurant booth are so tempting, with their claims of guilt-free indulgence and enhanced flavor. It’s no surprise that The Mayo Clinic, a not-for-profit medical practice, has estimated artificial sweeteners are currently used in more than 6,000 diet and low-calorie food products, from sports drinks to chewing gum.

As a growing trend for self-proclaimed sweet tooths, artificial sweeteners are defined as sugar substitutes that are stripped of sucrose and generally categorized as either “natural sweeteners,” “novel sweeteners” or “sugar alcohols.” The debate runs rampant, as consumers and researches alike challenge these substitutes in regards to health and satisfaction.

Rest assured about one thing: It is completely natural to crave sweet foods. In fact, humans have evolved from the hunter-gatherers when sweetness signaled something was safe to eat, according to nutritionmad.org. In contrast to the past, an abundance of calories is no longer essential, but the craving for sweet things remains. Their versatility is among the many appeals of these food additives to diabetics and the health conscious.

Used for baking, mixing and sprinkling, only a fraction of what a person uses for recipes containing ordinary sugar is needed because the majority of artificial sweeteners are 200 times or more sweeter than table sugar. Sweetness is measured by comparison of solutions of sucrose, which is the standard to which all other sweeteners are compared. With virtually no calories, artificial sweeteners are easy on the waistline and blood pressure levels, too. In comparison, each gram of regular table sugar has four calories. Basically, consuming artificial sweeteners means consuming less pure sugar. This means, in the long term, individuals are at less risk for obesity, osteoporosis and heart disease due to complications of excess weight.

“Yes … they are safe,” said Karen Blakeslee, K-State extension associate of animal sciences and industry. “They are a good sweetener for those who are diabetic or obese because they are low in carbohydrates.”

Nearly 4 in 10 Americans believe artificial sweeteners can play a role in weight loss or weight management, and one-third of Americans also believe low-calorie or artificial sweeteners can reduce the calorie content of foods. Because their basic chemical makeup is different, artificial sweeteners generally don’t raise blood sugar levels, and though they often taste just as sweet, an associatedcontent.com report on health and wellness insists they won’t contribute to tooth decay in the long run because they don’t cause oral bacteria and often increase the flow of saliva, which helps clean teeth.

Though Equal, Splenda and Sweet’N Low are all approved by the Food and Drug Administration, it’s more than just the occasional bitter aftertaste that has critics up in arms. While research is still widely inconclusive, studies dating back to the 1970s were the first to link saccharin, found in Sweet’N Low, to cancer and diabetes in laboratory rats, according to a report by The Mayo Clinic.

“Today, all food additives are tested very thoroughly and studies are scrutinized by FDA scientists before approval is granted,” said Fadi Aramouni, professor of food science. “Tests are done on at least two species for acute toxicity, carcinogenicity, mutagenicity and teratogenicity. Aspartame might cause problems for people with phenylketonuria, and therefore foods sweetened with aspartame carry a warning.”

Other studies cited by The Mayo Clinic claim aspartame, found in Equal and NutraSweet, inhibits the release of neurotransmitters that cause pain within the body, causing possible side effects including headaches and, in more serious cases, brain tumors. Another warning sign making consumers hesitate is the fact that certain packaging does not recommend infants and pregnant women to use their products. Critics question why the general population should consume something that is considered dangerous for any demographic. This concern was also accompanied by those like what is being reported by the health product provider Global Healing Center: though the taste of sugar is being mimicked, sweeteners offer no real source of energy for anyone’s body. Because the sweeteners’ preparation involves chemically changing the structure of the sugar molecule, the FDA found small levels of toxicity present, which might explain why artificial sweeteners can often cause intestinal discomfort. It’s still uncertain how exactly these products affect appetite, but all science and scares aside, treating yourself to a snack laden with artificial sugar can trick you into eating more than you planned because people tend to think they are eating wisely.

It’s important to keep in mind there’s no health advantage to consuming added sugar of any type. Consuming too much can lead to health problems, such as poor nutrition and increased triglycerides. It’s always best to look beyond the hype and understand you are a consumer and this is just another product. The sudden push in the global market toward various artificial sweeteners is a result of the simple fact that producing an artificial sweetener is much more economic than growing natural sugar, explained by wisegeek.com.

This means the profit margins for manufacturers of artificial sweeteners rises, so they are pushing their products on food and drink producers. Though, according to the National Cancer Institute and other health agencies, there’s no sound scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the United States cause cancer or other serious health problems, it’s wise to pay close attention to how your body feels and always use artificial sweeteners in moderation.

“The benefit of using artificial sweeteners depends on people using them,” Aramouni said. “Sugar plays a role in satiety and therefore people who use foods with artificial sweeteners need to make sure they’re not fooling themselves and their bodies. They should look at their whole diet and caloric intake especially in these days when we have an overweight/obesity and diabetes epidemic.”

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